Police lights flashed in my rearview. Hadn’t I stopped at that stop sign? Not fully. I pulled over right away. At least I wasn’t late to anything. Soon the officer spoke into his microphone, “Bravo, Alpha, Lincoln . . .” In this way he spelled my name, letter by letter, to some listener.
Then he said a sentence describing me. It seemed to flash-freeze in the air: “White female.” What? I’m not white. I answered his next questions by rote, still hearing the phrase frozen in the ether. White female.
The officer was white himself — or so I assumed. His reddish hair showed around his ears below his helmet, and his skin was definitely light. Then again, I had to ask myself — what is white? I’ve read that light-skinned Italians, Jews, and even Finns have been considered non-white at different times in our country’s history, while Mexican folks were counted as white on the 1940 census, and Cubans have often been seen as white. Probably this officer identified as “white,” but I couldn’t be sure.
Still, I was surprised that the officer didn’t notice what I call my permanent tan. Maybe he “saw white” because I was driving in an affluent area? — though I’m sure he knew that people of all colors are affluent. Or maybe, like the US government, he didn’t see Hispanic as a race, but more of a cultural designation. Maybe the form he was filling out didn’t leave room for nuances like mixed-race or bi-racial, which is what I consider myself.
I drove off with a ticket and also a question. Why had I reacted to being called white? My mom is of British descent, according to the tubes we all spit into to find out about our DNA. She’s definitely light and born in Iowa. And I am lighter than my Guatemalan dad. I love my Mom, of course, and my whole maternal family. What’s wrong with being called white, then?
The answer came quickly. Erasure. A cultural treasure gets buried if someone sees me as only white. My self-image is Latina, even if my Spanish is sketchy and I don’t see my Dad’s Guatemalan side of the family as much as my mom’s. I don’t want half of myself deleted.
And it’s not only about me. I want people to see that our world is a color-filled place, a mixed place. I want them to see that the United States is a variegated skein. I don’t want anyone to miss the beautiful complexity, nor oversimplify anyone’s identity. Naturally, we can’t have unlimited numbers of boxes on forms or this officer’s report, but we can have awareness that we’re all more than meets the eye.
People have thought I was purely Latina, too. They’ve run up to me and started speaking Spanish without thinking, especially when I was in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood or in an ethnic grocery store. No one is trying to be rude, of course. The brain makes split-second assessments about people we see. We can’t help it. But we can question our first instinct. We can hold off the generalizations.
My family tells the story of a relative who was caught up in an immigration raid. Though he later became a citizen, he wasn’t yet. But he was light-skinned, so he just stood to the side. Had he opened his mouth, the ICE officers would have heard his Spanish accent. He stayed quiet, and they passed him by.
So both the immigration officers and my traffic officer made a split-second guess. Wholly wrong and half wrong, respectively. It might be true that in both cases it worked to our advantage. Which is also too bad — that whiteness grants such advantages. Of course, I don’t know if the police officer treated me any better than he would have if he’d considered me a person of color. He did his job. I hope he would have done the same, regardless.
But I also didn’t correct him. I was too surprised, and then it felt like there wasn’t time. And he might not have had a box called “brown” or even Hispanic. Besides, who wants to prolong a traffic stop? But I drove off wishing I had.
“Like the ball in the car you’re going to sell.” This is how I explain the pronunciation of my last name, Balcárcel, to bank tellers and airline representatives, my self-defense instructor and my students. My mother invented this phrase after hearing her married name mispronounced as Bar-carcel, Ban-carcel, and Balcar-kell almost daily. I think her trick works pretty well at demystifying the name. The phrase jingles on the tongue, and most people appreciate a hand. In fact, when I graduated from high school, I tried to help the announcer by writing out Ball-car-sell. I thought Mom’s stratagem would work as perfectly on paper as it did in person. I printed my name, accent and all, then wrote Ball-car-sell underneath in parenthesis. I imagined the syllables ringing through the auditorium in pure pronunciation tones. It backfired, and I was almost off-stage before my parents realized, “That’s our daughter up there shaking hands with the principal.” The announcer had mumbled something unintelligible; Dad snapped a photo just in time to hear Barker, the name of the next student.
We laughed about it later, but I admit to some disappointment. I didn’t gasp—no surprise that the predictable happened—but I did sigh. Practiced as I was at not letting mispronunciation bother me, it pinched a little. It reminded me that even the progressive educators who loved having a Latina in class, and even the announcer-speech teacher who prided himself on crisp consonants and a broadcast-worthy baritone couldn’t step into another language easily. And though I had attended school in this district from fifth grade on, no one had quite figured out Balcárcel.
Every first day of school had been a name nightmare for me. The teacher would start calling roll at the front of the room. When a long pause followed a name like Anderson, Scott, I knew the teacher’s brain was stalling out on mine. Added to her distress at seeing Balcárcel, my nickname Bequi appeared next to it. Bequi is pronounced “Becky,” as people with some knowledge of Spanish might guess, but the combination—Bequi Balcárcel—stumped every teacher I had.
As a girl, I coped by disassociating myself from my name. I couldn’t afford to take every mispronunciation personally, so I pushed my name out of myself into its own realm. There it could be stepped on, twisted, or ignored without me feeling stepped on, twisted, or ignored. I didn’t want to impose on people by coaching them on my name. It took too much time and yielded flawed results. The wrong syllable stressed, the hard c pronounced soft, the soft c pronounced hard. I waved away the sounds and took this approach: people could fumble with my name like a doorknob, and I’d let them in just to hear the rattling stop.
I don’t blame folks for stumbling over three syllables and an accent mark. I agree: Balcárcel looks intimidating. The accent, especially, seems to snuff out most people’s will to even hazard a guess. But if someone does try, I now applaud the effort no matter what comes out. The knob- rattling bothers me less than it used to. My local grocery store wants its employees to greet every customer by name. Every week I say, “Close enough” with a smile. My own children don’t have the pronunciation mastered, so I’m not expecting the grocery staff to catch on anytime soon. Maybe I’m mellower because I’m letting my name creep closer. I’ve brought it in from the back shed and given it a place in the living room. Instead of distancing myself from my name, I see it as a fun facet of who I really am. It’s no longer painful to hear Bancursel. The complexity of my name reflects the complexity of my identity, and no one can know me or my name fully on a first encounter.
Despite the difficulties, or maybe because of them and the attention they stirred, I kept my name when I married. My Guatemalan father always joked that I’d marry an American named Smith and lose my heritage. In fact, I married a man named Stith. I could have changed my name and stopped chanting “like the ball in the car you’re going to sell,” but I couldn’t face going from three syllables to one; just listen to that monosyllabic thud after the three-syllable “Rebecca.” Besides, I liked my name. And maybe Dad has a point. My name might be the most Latin thing about me.
Growing up monolingual in Iowa did not instill much fiesta flavor. My Spanish was spotty, and though I knew some lullabies and phrases like “I am ten years old,” I couldn’t hold a conversation with my grandparents. When they visited one year, flying all the way from Central America, I sang for them and smiled a lot, but I couldn’t tell them about my teddy bear collection or read them a story I’d written. For a week, the adults volleyed words over my head. It felt like verbal keep-away. Later, equipped with four years of high school Spanish, I visited Guatemala. My grandmother was no longer with us, but I was able to tell my abuelo about college plans and my hope of learning guitar. For two weeks I played Latina, but I’m still more salt than cilantro.
As much as I love my Balcárcel family, the music, the food, and the all-night dancing, I’m a visitor, not a native. My bi-lingual cousins live in the States — kids whose parents both immigrated. Priests conduct their weddings in Spanish, and they make homemade tamales. They include me, but I stand on the other side of a border. Instead of tamales, I make a green bean casserole that appears in church cook books across the Midwest. Their homes feel foreign. My name is a valid passport, but the country isn’t home.
I used to be comfortable staying on my side of that border. With an Anglo mother, I grew up able to pass for white. Further, people rewarded my whiteness. My perfect English, my punctuality, and my way of telling a story directly rather than taking a long, winding ramp, marked me as Americanized. Perfectly assimilated. In school and on the job, this works beautifully. I blend into the dominant culture like a top-level spy. Except I’m a double-agent. I truly seem white in most ways. When my parents first tried to teach me Spanish, I wouldn’t speak it. Embarrassed by the too-colorful dresses and the trumpety mariachi music, I ran from my heritage. When I wanted to rediscover it, I found it difficult. Balcárcel is a slim link to a world that I, for the most part, lost.
A few years ago, I learned something else about my name. The byline that goes with this essay shows my first name as Rebecca, but it was supposed to be “Rebeca.” My parents wanted the Spanish spelling. My father laughs at English’s use of doubled letters. “Two c’s?” he asks. “Why not three?” My middle name, too, is misspelled on my birth certificate. Lee should read “Li.” Again, the English version won out. According to family legend, this is an family friend’s unintentional doing. Somehow the paperwork went through her hands rather than my parents’. So I’m Rebecca Lee instead of Rebeca Li.
Sometimes people ask why I don’t correct my legal name. A Latino poet recently wanted to know how to spell Rebecca before autographing his book for me. When I explained the mistake, he looked over his glasses and said, “What are you going to do about that?” He’s a big man, with a commanding presence; I told him to inscribe the book to “Rebeca.” However, at home the name looked odd, like a pair of shoes that seem to fit in the store, but turn out to be the wrong size. I am so used to the misspelled version that it feels more appropriate. Maybe “Rebecca” is more appropriate. The poet wanted me to embrace my heritage by changing my name, but my full name, as is, reflects my heritage pretty well. My English name first, my Latin name last.
My perfect name would be Rebecca Li Balcárcel, combining the two languages. Actually, this is what I thought my name was until I received my social security card at age sixteen. “Lee” looked awkward then and still does. It also pricks my heart because Li comes from my father’s nickname, Lico, pronounced Lee-coe. With this tie to my father accidentally cut, I feel even more unmoored. I wince when I sign legal documents that require my full name. I found myself telling the Li-Lee story to the mortgage broker. She simply handed me the pen. The names should sound the same in the ear, but they don’t to me. I imagine that I can hear the correct spelling when I say my full name, and that the written version is wrong. It’s only one letter, a single line of ink and a dot, but it makes me my father’s daughter. I might speak Spanish only in present tense, and I might never learn the love songs my grandfather wrote, but Li is my rightful middle name. Still, to change it would cost more money than I can justify, so I’m letting that layer of Anglo lie on my name for now, a dusting of bleached flour on a browned pastry.
These days I go by a few other names, such as Mom and Professor. These spare me hearing the mispronunciation of Balcárcel. In fact, I tend to be on a first-name basis with the world, asking folks to call me Rebecca as soon as I meet them. I don’t want to get rid of my last name, though. As long as people can imagine a ball in the car they want to sell, I’ll keep letting folks give it a try. Maybe I agree with Shakespeare; a rose would smell as sweet even if called a rosse. I can live with an extra c in my first name and the floundering over my last name. Even the Lee. I’ve learned to embrace the mess, the beautiful bang that resulted from my parents’ collision. I’m picking up the pieces I like and making collage that suits me. When people ask my name, it leads to conversations about Guatemala, my mom’s Peace Corps service, the Northern regions of Spain, and my father’s immigrant story. Then I hear about their ancestors or their love of soccer. My name gives us a kick- off, and an exciting get-to-know-you game begins.
Acknowledgements Many thanks to Segue and editor Eric Melbye, who published this essay in Issue 8, Fall 2009.
“What are you?” my friend’s nephew was asked. He is Peruvian and African American.
I’ve been asked this, too. A lot. In fact, mixed kids report being asked this quite a bit. Their skin is brown, but their eyes are blue. Or their hair isn’t what people expect, given their bone structure. I sound white, but look vaguely indigenous. I have been assumed to be Chinese, Navaho, Mexican, and European. I’m actually Guatemalan-American, descended from basically Brits and Mayans.
Born in Iowa, my Guatemalan side stood out there. I was the only brown kid in my class, maybe in my school. The town was small enough that my Guatemalan dad was a bit of a celebrity. I never heard a cruel word about my parents’ marriage, nor my permanent tan. When I got to Texas, I was seen differently. Latinxes thought I spoke Spanish, which I didn’t. But more than once, a light kid insulted immigrants from south of Texas, not realizing that I was the child of one. I was first asked “What are you?” at church, another time in a job interview, and many times since.
Admittedly, the question is dehumanizing. Along with “Where are you from?” since mostly, we mash-ups in the US would say “Here!” But, you know what, I don’t mind it the way I used to. I think most askers are trying to open a new folder in their brains and aren’t sure what to call it. Undoubtedly, other askers are trying to fit the mixed person into a box that carries assumptions and stereotypes, but the people I’ve run into are mainly curious. They’re often intrigued when they find out my background and think it’s cool. If we lived in Brazil, we could visit three states that actually designate a holiday, June 27, as the day to celebrate “mestizos,” or mixed folks.
It’s not as easy for every mixed person out there, though. Many speak of taunting coming from both sides — name-calling, ostracizing, and the implication that they aren’t “black enough” or “Korean enough” or whatever-enough to be part of the community. Barack Obama was criticized for marking Black on the 2010 census because he his half white and half black. His choice shows that he knows he is perceived as black, and therefore, is living the experience of a black man, despite his mother’s being white.
Mixed people don’t always admit their mixed-ness, and for good reason. Before 1967, when the Supreme Court cleared the way for two people to marry regardless of race, it could be damaging to reveal a mixed bloodline. In overtly racist areas, the stigma of having a black ancestor could threaten livelihoods and even lives. Also, the US census only starting offering the choice to check multiple race boxes in 2000. Statistics show an increase in mixed kids in this century partly because it’s now possible to report it.
On the other hand, mixed marriages and mixed kids are more noticeable now than ever. The famous royals, Harry and Meghan, aren’t alone. We probably are experiencing an increase in the real number of multi-racial people in the USA. The UK shows rises as well.
The up-side is that we mixed kids tend to grow up appreciative of cultural variety and are fluent in more than one way of being. We live the truth that our parents’ human-ness is the same, regardless of race. Some of us are bi-lingual, and some grew up in two faith traditions. It’s natural to look at us as symbols of harmony among all peoples.
Symbols, maybe, but we aren’t the solution to ending racism forever. If only. For that, we need to work on many fronts for years to come, including emphasizing how artificial all divisions really are.
But let’s celebrate our multi-ness and the bravery of our parents. Let’s teach people to say, “What’s your background?” if they’re curious and not intending to insult. Let’s enjoy the creativity and flexibility of mind that mixed folks add to this world.
And when it comes to answering the question, “What are you?”, as my friend and I said that day about her nephew, in unison, “Tell them you’re a human being.”
When my Guatemalan father started dating my Anglo mother, a man nudged him and said, “¿Mejorando la rasa, eh?” or “Bettering the race, huh?”
The comment made little sense to me when Dad told the story. If white skin is some sort of club, then my dad can’t be in it no matter whom he marries, and I wouldn’t qualify either. Yet, I am lighter-skinned than he is and my kids are lighter still, since their father is white. Also, I’m pretty Americanized, my kids even more so. None of this changes my father’s skin color or mine, but I’m starting to grasp what the man was getting at: whitening.
This “whitening” business assumes a lot:
That marrying a lighter-skinned person is a “step up,” socially
That marrying an American (specifically an Anglo-American) means undergoing total cultural assimilation
That Anglo-American culture is better than Latino culture
And of course: that white is better than deeper skin tones
Sadly, this involves some shame on the part of this man for his own culture and color, unless he was joking. True, my dad relayed the incident with a laugh, but I didn’t get the idea that the man was winking at a by-gone attitude. My strong impression was that this man was congratulating my father on winning the heart of a light-skinned American woman. Make no mistake, my mother is a catch. She’s smart, positive, musical, socially conscious, and energetic, but these weren’t the qualities she was being admired for in this “bettering the race” comment. The comment was prompted by her nationality and by the low melanin levels she inherited from British ancestors.
The remark revealed prejudice, but it also revealed assumptions about the results of inter-racial marriage. According to the whitening model, my dad was lucky to marry an Anglo-American because now he could act white, live white, and have kids who did the same.
My reaction to that? 😕 (confused face) and 🤦 (face palm).
Here’s the thing. Though my dad became a citizen and learned to arrive on time, sing “Happy Birthday,” and shovel snow, he remains a proud Latino. My mother enjoys her American culture, but also recalls her two years in Guatemala with great fondness. She drapes walls with Guatemalan weavings, sings Spanish love songs, and makes sure the TV bundle includes fútbol channels. Much about my childhood was American, especially in 1970’s Iowa, but Spanish lullabies, Spanish Scrabble games, and my dad’s voiced observations on both cultures were ever-present. Living white was never the goal.
Nowadays, most people realize that “whitening” oversimplifies and misrepresents the bi-cultural experience. Naturally, Latin@-Anglo families live out a range of experiences, from whitening to mixing to browning.Sociologist Jessica M. Vasquez identifies four categories for inter-racial family styles in her article, “The Whitening Hypothosis Challenged: Bi-culturalism in Latino and Non-Hispanic White Intermarriage.” Thank you!
Vasquez interviewed 28 people and observed these family styles:
Everyday bi-culturalism (casual mixing of cultures)
Selective blending (deliberate incorporation of desired aspects of each culture)
Vasquez emphasizes that these are nodes on a spectrum, with real-life families not fitting neatly into any one category. I see my family shuttling up and down this list within my lifetime and within decades. For example, I’d say we started out leaning white, with Dad learning English and attending a Protestant church.
Later, my parents became representatives of international flavor in my hometown, putting on presentations about Guatemala. Mom started teaching Spanish to me at this time, and I became aware of an everyday biculturalism. When we moved from Iowa to Texas, we tuned into Spanish TV stations and easily found foods like tamales, but eschewed the Latin world’s narrower roles for women. This slid us toward selective blending. I can’t say we truly leaned Latino except when Balcárcel family visited. For that day, we’d do everything the Latin way, playing marimba music, dancing, gesturing more, and speaking mostly Spanish, depending on which relatives came and how long they’d been in the States. When I married, our new family leaned white. I bought our boys soccer balls and had my parents teach them Spanish, but our home was basically Anglo — a little alternative, with vegetarian meals and a compost bucket, but Anglo. Had I married a Latino, I’m guessing we would have leaned Latino, but I married an Anglo man. I didn’t consciously set out to do this, but my high school wasn’t diverse, and I married a classmate at age 20. College might have had more men of color, but I was a newlywed and didn’t notice. My graduate school was almost entirely white.
My sons are now in their 20’s, and one enjoys learning languages. Arabic, Mandarin, Twi . . . you name it! I hope his facility with languages was helped by early exposure to Spanish. In any case, I see him socializing with an international group of acquaintances. I wouldn’t be surprised if he dated a woman of color or married one. If so, I’ll be curious to see how they build their bi-cultural home. Marrying white is okay too, as is not marrying at all. I just hope he’ll always be pleased to own his bi-cultural heritage.
I have this same wish for myself. As I age, I find that I want to brush up on my Spanish and note the details of my dad’s childhood. I’m playing chords he taught me on the guitar. I love my extended Anglo family, and I grew up with them, but I want to balance myself and not lose my Latina-ness.
About ten years ago, I learned that I have a half-sister in Guatemala. Azucena is a feisty, sensitive, intelligent, lovely woman. Though we need Google translate to communicate, we are getting to know each other. In her, I’m finding another link to my heritage and more reasons to keep Guatemala in my daily consciousness and in my heart.
My dad speaks Spanish. My mom speaks Spanish. My second son speaks it pretty well. So what’s my problem? Why is my Spanish –let’s just say it– pathetic?
Nowadays, bilingual parents know the value of immersing kids in both languages. That wasn’t true in the 1970’s when I was born. Parents were told that using two languages confused babies and toddlers, causing significant language delays. The smart tactic of code-switching was seen as a deficit rather than a strength. (I wish I were kidding.)
More mundane, my Dad was busy learning English during my youngest years. Born as a Spanish-speaking Guatemalan, he was strict with himself as he tried to keep Spanish to a minimum in order to immerse himself in English. He watched Sesame Street, listened to co-workers, read newspapers. It worked. He passed his GED during his second year in the USA and went on to finish college and become –wait for it– an English teacher!
Mom speaks Spanish, but English is her first language. During her time in the Peace Corps, her Spanish zoomed from book-learned to fluent. Once home, though, her urgent project was to help her new husband master English.
My parents didn’t leave Spanish totally behind. They sang love songs to each other and children’s songs to me. They spoke español as a grown-up code that would let them talk over my head, which made me listen closer. They even tried to teach me Spanish out of a book when I was nine. It was too late. Not too late to learn, but too late to absorb the language in that miraculous way that babies do. Plus, they kept speaking to me in English.
I took Spanish classes in school. My teacher heard my last name and hoped I would excel. I did my best, but I worked for those A’s. In fact, my upcoming novel includes a scene based on this experience. I took Spanish in college as well. By twenty, I reached my Spanish fluency zenith.
It dwindled from there. Though I don’t feel guilty about not knowing more español, I do wish I could read Spanish writers and converse with fellow Latinxes effortlessly. Life would be more fun. I would get my dad’s puns. My Duolingo app makes sure I’ll never forget the word for apple, but it doesn’t go far enough. I could take a class, and I’ve been invited to a bi-lingual “talking group,” but I haven’t arranged my schedule to fit those in.
The truth is that even if I learn a lot more, I won’t be fluent. My bi-lingual cousins will always speak more English than I speak Spanish. I could get better. A lot better. But I’ve decided I’m okay with my Spanish “como tourista.” Bi-linguality isn’t a test I’ve failed. It’s very cool, but it’s not going to be me unless I work harder than I want to or move to Spain.
I admire all the bi- and multi-lingual folks out there. I toast you and your awesomeness! For myself, I’m a little sad that I can’t do that thing you do. I’ll still listen to marimba music and make homemade tortillas once in while. I’ll listen to my parents sing those romantic love songs.
Even when I miss most of the lyrics, their meaning comes across just fine. Love jumps the language barrier. Like it did for my parents back in Guatemala in the 1960’s, as they fell in love in two broken tongues.